Several articles I have read recently have used the word “gentleman,” and it’s beginning to make my skin prickle. Once upon a time, the word meant something specific:
a : a man of noble or gentle birth
b : a man belonging to the landed gentry
c (1) : a man who combines gentle birth or rank with chivalrous qualities (2) : a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior
d (1) : a man of independent means who does not engage in any occupation or profession for gain (2) : a man who does not engage in a menial occupation or in manual labor for gain
It implied a certain level of behavior, an adherence to a code of honor. When Scarlett O’Hara tried to think of the worst thing she could say to Rhett Butler, she came up with, “You, sir, are no gentleman!” (He laughed, that sexy, sexy scoundrel.)
Then came American egalitarianism, and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner lounging around in his bathrobe, and the grim, windowless “gentleman’s clubs” alongside the West Side Highway, and nowadays the word means … what? Supposedly, “a man who treats other people in a proper and polite way.” A nicer-than-average dude, perhaps the kind that doesn’t frequent the clubs along the West Side Highway. The word has been utterly divorced from class, which is appropriate in a world when so many rich men act like boors anyway. But it has simultaneously been leached of meaning. Which is … maybe a shame?
In this Hello Beautiful feature, for example, a newly engaged woman gushes about her fiance, twice calling him “a gentleman”:
My first impression–he was shy, yet charming, very much a gentleman and, of course, very handsome. … Our first date was a beautiful day in Brooklyn. At the time, I resided in East Williamsburg. So Ryan, being a gentleman, chose a brunch spot in my neck of the woods.
“Do you like black girls?,” read a text sent to me from a colleague. Her boss was trying to set us up on a date. He saw we had a connection on set at the photo shoot. I responded with a tasteless text like, “F*** yeah, I do!” … when she arrived, she glowed all cinematic and backlit in her cute summer dress. The neckline swooped down exposing a hint of her cleavage and they looked incredible and perky.
So, a gentleman is … disgustingly eager to talk about your boobs in print? Troy Patterson would probably disagree. His witty, erudite new column, Gentleman Scholar, addresses questions of modern-day etiquette. He is full of useful, if occasionally didactic, advice, such as, Alphabetize your books.
Exceptions to this rule are few and fairly obvious: You are permitted to break from the abecedarian plan to shelve anthologies, reference texts, how-to books, and miscellany. It’s best to shelve literary biographies alongside the works of their subjects. You are encouraged to put the cookbooks in the kitchen, the cocktail books at the bar, the dirty books within reach of the sex swing, and the fiction of Sontag and Steinbeck out on the curb. If you encounter the shelves of a person who arranges his books by color, the most correct observation is, “Oh, that’s cute.”
So, a gentleman is … decisive, organized, well-spoken, and kind of snobbily uninterested in populist, even award-winning fiction?
Maybe a gentleman is just someone who likes to spend money on high-end accessories. That seems to be Business Insider’s view, according to its list of Best Websites for Gentlemen. Sites recommended include GQ, Eleven James (“A crucial part of any gentleman’s wardrobe is an elegant and classy wristwatch”) and Mr. Porter.com (“If you’re looking to deck out in true menswear luxury, Mr Porter should be your next web destination. Relish it”).
Does any of this matter? Do you aspire to be / associate with gentlemen? Or is the word a classist, sexist relic you’re happy to watch fade away?